This article is about a poetic form. For the competitive speech event, see Prose & Poetry.
Prose poetry is poetry written in prose instead of using verse but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery, parataxis and emotional effects.
"The simplest definition is that a prose poem is a poem written in prose....But, not unlike "free verse," the oxymoronic name captures the complex nature of a beast bred to challenge conventional assumptions about what poetry is and what it can do." 'The prose poem is a composition printed out as prose that names itself as poetry, availing itself of the elements of prose, while foregrounding the devices of poetry.'
Technically a prose poem appears as prose, reads as poetry, yet lacks line breaks associated with poetry but uses the latter's fragmentation, compression, repetition and rhyme. and in common with poetry symbols, metaphor, and figures of speech.
Prose poetry should be considered as neither primarily poetry nor prose but is essentially a hybrid or fusion of the two, and accounted a separate genre altogether. On the other hand, the argument for prose poetry belonging to the genre of poetry emphasizes its heightened attention to language and prominent use of metaphor. Yet prose poetry often can be identified as prose for its reliance on prose's association with narrative and on the expectation of an objective presentation of truth..
In 17th-century Japan, Matsuo Bashō originated haibun, a form of prose poetry combining haiku with prose. It is best exemplified by Matsuo Bashō's book, Oku no Hosomichi, in which he used a literary genre of prose-and-poetry composition of multidimensional writing.
In the West, prose poetry originated in early-19th-century France and Germany as a reaction against traditional line in verse.
Earlier examples can be found in Western literature, e.g., James Macpherson's "translation" of Ossian. German Romanticism (Jean Paul, Novalis, Hoelderlin, Heine) may be seen as forerunners of the prose poem as it evolved in Europe. At the time of the prose poem's establishment as a form, French poetry was dominated by the Alexandrine, a strict and demanding form that poets starting with Aloysius Bertrand and later Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé rebelled against in works such as Gaspard de la nuit, Paris Spleen and Les Illuminations. Germany and Austria throughout the nineteenth century produced a large body of examples of prose poetry without using the designation.
The prose poem continued to be written in France into the 20th century by such writers as Max Jacob, Henri Michaux, Gertrude Stein and Francis Ponge. At the end of the 19th century, British Decadent movement poets such as Oscar Wilde picked up the form.
Writers of prose poetry outside France include Fenton Johnson, Amy Lowell, Friedrich Hölderlin, Novalis, Hans Christian Andersen, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Maeterlinck, Turgenev, Kafka, Georg Trakl, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Clarice Lispector.
Notable Modernist poet T. S. Eliot wrote vehemently against prose poems. He added to the debate about what defines the genre, saying in his introduction to Djuna Barnes' highly poeticized 1936 novel Nightwood that this work may not be classed as "poetic prose" as it did not have the rhythm or "musical pattern" of verse. In contrast, a couple of other Modernist authors wrote prose poetry consistently, including Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Canadian author Elizabeth Smart, written in 1945, is a relatively isolated example of English-language poetic prose in the mid-20th century.
Prose poems gained a resurgence in the early 1950s and '60s when American poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Russell Edson, Charles Simic, Robert Bly, John Ashbery and James Wright experimented with the form. Edson worked principally in this form, and helped give the prose poem its current reputation for surrealist wit. Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1989 collection, The World Doesn't End.
At the time, poets elsewhere were exploring the form in Spanish, Japanese and Russian. Octavio Paz worked in this form in Spanish in his Aguila o Sol? (Eagle or Sun?). Spanish poet Ángel Crespo did his most notable work in the genre. Giannina Braschi, postmodern Spanish-language poet, wrote a trilogy of prose poems, El imperio de los sueños (Empire of Dreams, 1988). Translator Dennis Keene presents the work of six Japanese prose poets in The Modern Japanese Prose Poem: an Anthology of Six Poets. Similarly, Adrian Wanner and Caryl Emerson describe the form's growth in Russia in their critical work, Russian Minimalism: from the Prose Poem to the Anti-story.
The writings of Syrian poet and writer Francis Marrash (1836–73) featured the first examples of prose poetry in modern Arabic literature. From the mid-20th century, the great Arab exponent of prose poetry was the Syrian poet Adunis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber, born 1930), a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.
In Poland, Bolesław Prus (1847–1912), influenced by the French prose poets, had written a number of poetic micro-stories, including "Mold of the Earth" (1884), "The Living Telegraph" (1884) and "Shades" (1885). His somewhat longer story, "A Legend of Old Egypt" (1888), likewise shows many features of prose poetry.
Since the late 1980s, prose poetry has gained popularity. Journals have begun specializing in the publication solely of prose poems or microfiction (external links, below). In the UK, in 1993, Stride Books published an anthology of prose poetry, "A Curious Architecture".
These include: Cassandra Atherton, Alan Baker, Giannina Braschi, Charles Bukowski, Paul Dickey, Stephen Dunn, Russell Edson, Kimiko Hahn, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Louis Jenkins, Tom Mandel (poet)Campbell McGrath, Sheila Murphy, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, John Olson, Marge Piercy, Claudia Rankine, Bruce Holland Rogers, Mary Ruefle, Ron Silliman, Robin Spriggs, James Tate, Thomas Wiloch, and Gary Young.
- Robert Alexander, C.W. Truesdale, and Mark Vinz. "The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry." New Rivers Press, 1996.
- Michel Delville, "The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre." Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, 1998
- Stephen Fredman, "Poet’s Prose: The Crisis in American Verse." 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Ray Gonzalez, "No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets." Tupelo Press, 2003.
- David Lehman, "Great American prose poems: from Poe to the present." Simon & Schuster, 2003
- Jonathan Monroe, "A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre." Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.
- Margueritte S. Murphy, "A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem from Wilde to Ashbery." Amherst, Mass.: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
- Zygmunt Szweykowski, Twórczość Bolesława Prusa (The Art of Bolesław Prus), 2nd ed., Warsaw, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1972.
|Look up prose poem in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- ^Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham (eds.) An Introduction to the Prose Poem. (2009)
- ^Hirsch Robert 'A Poets Glossary' Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , New York 2014
- ^'Poetic form:Prose poem' Poets.org Academy of American Poets New York
- ^'Glossary of Terms' Poetry Magazine - Poetry Foundation Chicago 2015
- ^Hirsch, Robert, A Poet's Glossary, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 ISBN 9780151011957.
- ^Lowenstein, Tom, ed., Classic Haiku, London, Duncan Baird Publishers, 2007.
- ^Stuart Friebert and David Young (eds.) Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem. (1995)
- ^Gedichte in Prosa. Von der Romantik bis zur Moderne. Vorwort und Auswahl, Alexander Stillmark, Frankfurt a. Main (2013)
- ^Jayyusi, Salma Khadra (1977). Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry. Volume I. Brill. p. 23.
- ^Robyn Creswell, "Hearing Voices: How the doyen of Arabic poetry draws on—and explodes—its traditions", The New Yorker, 18 & 25 December 2017, pp. 106–9.
- ^Zygmunt Szweykowski, Twórczość Bolesława Prusa, p.99
- ^Zygmunt Szweykowski, Twórczość Bolesława Prusa, pp. 149, 183, 301, 444.
- ^A Curious Architecture: New British and American Prose Poetry, London, Stride Press, 1993.
As with an essay, you should prepare and plan your commentary. This means getting to grips with the passage or poem by underlining key words, making notes, highlighting connections, marking how it divides into sections. In other words, a well-prepared commentary will not leave the text on the paper untouched but instead will make a meaningful mess of it. Then, on the basis of this preparation, you should plan your approach to the commentary so that it presents a coherent interpretation, not just a series of unconnected points.
The introduction should provide a framework for the main body of your commentary.
You should situate the passage within the work as a whole, e.g. beginning, end, after or before a particular key moment. This should be concise but sufficient: it may be very relevant to explain how the passage relates to what comes before or after, but do not retell the plot at length.
In situating the passage, and on the basis of your preparation and plan, you should also formulate in a brief but open way what you think it is about, what its theme or role is, as a key or framework to your commentary. For example, it may be a turning point in the narrative or key exposition of a character. In this it can be helpful to say something about the mode of the passage. For example, is it narrative or descriptive? Is it humorous or satirical?
Situate a poem in the chronology of the poet’s work if you can. In some cases it may also be useful to identify the broader literary context, e.g. the poem’s relation to a movement such as Romanticism. If you know about the biographical context and think it has some significance, then you may add something about that. As with a commentary on a prose passage, this situation of the poem should be concise but sufficient.
In situating the poem, and on the basis of your preparation and plan, you should also formulate in a brief but open way what you think it is about, what its theme is, as a key or framework to your commentary. For example, it may be an archetypal Romantic exploration of man and nature. In this it can be helpful to say something about the mode of the poem and identify its genre or form if you can. For example, is it rhetorical, contemplative or close to a song? Is it narrative or descriptive? Is it an elegy? Is it a sonnet?
The Main Body of the Commentary
A commentary should be concerned with the passage or poem as a whole, but it should also show the development through the passage or poem. This means that an appropriate structure for writing a commentary may be to follow this development. To do so in an illuminating way will very likely involve paying attention to the compositional structure of the passage or poem: does it divide into sections and, if so, how? What is the compositional movement through the passage or poem?
As you write your commentary you should be looking to illuminate the theme or themes (or mood or emotion) that the passage or poem illustrates and explores. This is not just a matter of identifying the theme but also of looking at how it is presented. How does the theme develop? How do contrasting themes relate? Is the theme typical of the story as a whole?
When you refer to the passage or poem, this should be done clearly and succinctly by reference, for example, to first, second etc. paragraphs or sentences (for prose), to first, second etc. stanzas and lines (for poetry). You do not therefore need to quote large sections from the text.
In a story or novel, the theme of the passage may be linked to characterisation. In this case you should consider not only what is revealed about a character but also how this is done, and maybe relate this to other aspects of the passage too. In general, in prose you need to pay particular attention to questions of narration: what is the narrative viewpoint and does it shift? What is the role of the narrator? Is there direct or indirect interior monologue? Whose words are these – the characters or narrator’s or author’s? How does irony function in the passage? What is the role of dialogue or description?
You should look for any key and repeated words/motifs, and for any tropes. What is the significance of the key words or motifs? Is there any use of imagery? Are there any metaphors or similes? What is their significance? Are they standard or original? Are there any other tropes – exaggeration, paradox etc.?
When looking at style in terms of lexis and syntax, you should consider what kinds of word are being used and their register. Does one particular part of speech play a particularly significant role? Are there a lot of adjectives or verbs? Is the lexis conversational? How does the choice of words relate to characterisation? In terms of syntax, pay attention to sentence type and structure. Are there questions or exclamations? Is the syntax simple or complex or convoluted? Is it ornate? This may relate to the meaning of the passage or the writer’s general style.
If you are studying the texts in translation, it may be difficult to comment on aspects of style. If the translation is a good one, however, it may be possible to draw attention to the tone and register of the language, as well as the rhythm of the passage as a whole.
You should look for any imagery, for key and recurrent motifs, for key and repeated words, and for any tropes. What is the significance of the images or motifs? How are they arranged or developed through the poem? How do images or repeated words relate to each other? Can you gather them into thematic clusters? Are there any metaphors or similes? What is their significance? Are they standard or original? Are there any other tropes – exaggeration, paradox etc. As with a prose passage, when looking at style in terms of lexis and syntax you should consider what kinds of word are being used and their register (e.g. archaic, Romantic, conversational). Does one particular part of speech play a particularly significant role? Are there a lot of adjectives or verbs? In terms of syntax, pay attention to sentence type and structure. Are there questions or exclamations? Is the syntax simple or complex or convoluted? Is it ornate? This may relate to the meaning of the poem or the poet’s general style.
When dealing with poetry, you should also look at other formal aspects, such as rhyme or sound play, stanza organisation, rhythm and metre, enjambment and internal rhyme (see the separate handout for information on this). We encourage you to develop familiarity with these aspects of poetic form and to enjoy the ‘music’ of poetry, but take care in this area. Effective interpretation usually needs to rest on thorough technical knowledge (‘slow’ and ‘fast’, for example, are not phonemic features in Russian). But you may fruitfully look for repeated sound clusters – especially around the stressed vowel, rather than at the beginning of words – and try and see how these highlight and link key words (this is much more common than onomatopoeia). Stanza organisation and rhyme scheme can help you to identify the compositional structure of the poem, and any change in these will be significant and is likely to accompany and highlight changes on other levels.
A brief conclusion to round off your commentary enables you to summarise the way that you have illuminated what the poem or passage is about and how it works.
Studying Texts in the Original Language
For students reading texts in the original, points about content can be made without always giving the words in the original language, e.g. ‘the emphasis on night and darkness in this passage...’, although you may need to support this by quoting the original words. Points about style should be made by quoting words or phrases in the original, but with an English translation (in brackets) if there is some ambiguity of meaning.
Commentary on a Historical Document
Writing a commentary about a historical document is an exercise in many ways similar to working on a commentary on a passage from prose and poem. However, in your commentary on a historical document you will need to determine
- the type of the document (legal act, administrative document, diplomatic act, polemical work, foreign account, etc.);
- the author of the document; or a group of people or an institution that have generated the document (the government, an oppositional party, the church, etc.);
- the date of the document (or how we can date the document if it has no date);
- the historical context of the documents or events that caused the creation of the document;
- the purpose(s) of the document;
- the impact of the document on historical events;
- the relevance of the document to major historical topics and problems;
- the significance of the document as a historical source.
A commentary is an exercise in close and detailed textual analysis. This may be of a short poem in its entirety or of a passage from a longer text. In this way a commentary repeats the kind of class work that does exactly this – going through a poem or looking at a particular passage in detail. While an essay requires you to draw on the work as a whole to show knowledge, analysis and argument that relates to and illuminates the question set, a commentary illuminates the meaning of a particular poem or passage and the way it works. From this you may be able to move on and say something more general, about the work as a whole or the writer/poet.